The Prevalence of English in Korea

Before I left for Korea, I posted an article I had previously written about English as a global language. Even though I’m only a few weeks into Fulbright, I am starting to realize for the first time just how much of an impact English has around the world–in positive and negative ways.

Korea is the first country I have visited that has a non-Roman alphabet (Hangul). Though I can recognize the letters and syllables in Hangul, this is my first experience (that I can remember, at least) of being nearly illiterate. While this is disconcerting at times, it is even more disconcerting to see how much I am able to understand–because even in a small rural town, so many words are also in English.

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Sokcho Weekend


This weekend, the Fulbright ETAs went to Sokcho, a beach town on the northeast coast, to take a break from the cultural workshops, language classes, and teacher training. My first taste of travel around Korea!

Mrs. Shim, Executive Director of the Korean-American Educational Commission that runs Fulbright Korea, offered a welcome address on Friday afternoon, in which she encouraged us to enjoy ourselves during the weekend and not even THINK about studying Korean or writing lesson plans. As a self-professed workaholic, this was probably the first time I’ve ever taken advice about not working. It was definitely worth the cramming I have to do back at Jungwon.

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A Different Way of Seeing the World…Literally

I was sitting in the ETA lounge at Jungwon today, doing my Korean homework and trying to remember all the rules for the past tense, when I looked up from my notebook and saw a map of the world hanging on the wall. But something about it was different.

I had flashbacks to elementary school geography, when I learned that maps could look different based on projections and shape. Sometimes Greenland was small and squished; other times it was the size of Africa. Sometimes Antarctica looked like a thin line, while other times it nearly touched South America. But in every map I had seen, North America was in the West and Asia was in the East.

Perhaps you’ve guessed how this map was different.

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Jungwon University

As previously mentioned, our orientation is held at Jungwon University in Goesan, a rural town about two hours south of Seoul. Although we spend most of our time in the dormitories, the Korean classrooms, an auditorium called “the Fishbowl,” and the cafeteria, today I explored some of the grounds outside of the university. Here are a few pictures to show the strange combination of traditional architecture, modernity,  rural roots, and dinosaur art that characterize this place we will call home for the first six weeks of the year.

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Receiving Insa

I was walking around Jungwon today, taking pictures with two of my friends, when we saw a Korean woman and her three children playing on the steps of the university. As the three of us walked past, we smiled and waved at the young family. The woman smiled back, inclined her head, and called out, “Hello!” She nudged one of her sons and said what sounded like, “Say hello!” The three children smiled and waved back, the son calling an enthusiastic, “Annyeong!” (“Hi!”). When I responded with “Annyeonghaseyo!”, the mother suddenly grabbed the child’s hair and pushed his head down into a full 90 degree bow. His siblings followed suit.

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First Language Class

So maaaaaybe “advanced beginner” is a little ambitious for me!

The little Korean I knew promptly disappeared as soon as 선생님 (“seonsaengnim” or “teacher”) began speaking. I have not heard much spoken Korean, so I spent most of the class trying to follow along and hoping that I was not the only one who was lost. It’s tricky to listen to the teacher, take notes, and look at the textbook at the same time when missing a word or two means the difference between understanding and confusion.

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Site visit to Gongju Sa-Dae-Bu High School

Today the ETAs went on site visits to elementary and high schools across Korea. I was in the group that shadowed David, a current ETA at Gongju Sa-Dae-Bu High School, and sat in on a few of his classes. During the day, we met the school principal and a few of David’s co-teachers, and we also ate lunch with the students in the cafeteria. It’s hard to believe that this will be me in a few short weeks!

Like in America, it is common for Korean high schools to be all girls or all boys. But even coed schools in Korea often have their classes separated by gender. Such was the case at David’s school. The ETAs in my group shadowed two of his female-only classes.  Each class had a different lesson, but both were equally fun and successful for the students.

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Korean Language Test

After a full night of much-needed sleep, we started Day 2 with the infamous language placement test. Professors from Korea University’s summer language program greeted us in the English Center (known among students as the “Fish Bowl”) and administered the test, which contained a written exam and an oral interview. The prompt for the exam was to write a self-introduction in Korean. More than half of the ETAs, who did not know any Korean, wrote their names at the top of the test and handed in a blank page, at which point they were allowed to leave without taking the oral portion of the test.

I knew a few phrases and sentences from the last few weeks, so I wrote “Hello! I am Janine” in Korean and stood on the line to hand in my test, expecting to be excused. When one of the instructors saw that I had written something, he whisked me away for an oral interview. Wait, what?!

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“A Language Can Live…But It Can Also Die”: Cross-Cultural Communication and National Identity

Take thirty seconds and write down as many languages as you can. Ready? Go!

You probably wrote down English (and any other primary languages you speak) first. After that, you most likely listed the foreign languages you studied in high school or college. Then you might have moved to other popular world languages: Mandarin, Russian, Spanish. But did you list Icelandic? Welsh? Haitian Creole?

According to the Linguistic Society of America, studies estimate that there are as many as six or seven thousand distinct languages spoken across the world. Exact numbers vary due to the difficulty of distinguishing languages from dialects and the challenges of learning about languages from remote regions—still, the number is immense! But as economic, political, and cultural borders begin to disappear, so do the languages that have held together different nations, peoples, and social identities. In an interdependent world, we must balance our need for cross-cultural communication with the need to maintain respect for regional languages, especially those that are in danger of extinction.

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